Thursday, August 22, 2013

S F Chronicle Interview | 22 August 2013 | by Jesse Hamlin

  • Ward Schumaker's "Helen of Genoa," painted in 2012, was triggered by feelings about death. Photo: Courtesy Ward Schumaker.
    Ward Schumaker's "Helen of Genoa," painted in 2012, was triggered by feelings about death.
 Today's San Francisco Chronicle kindly ran this interview by Jesse Hamlin:

Ward Schumaker, the noted San Francisco artist who makes vital Expressionist paintings and mixed-media pieces when he's not drawing illustrations for Hermes, Kronenbourg beer or various books, woke up from a dream a few years ago with the word Milarepa on his mind.

Schumaker had meditated for 35 years but had never heard of the Tibetan Buddhist yogi who'd spent 12 years sitting in a cave, meditating. Reading up on Milarepa, he came across the famous story about the monk baring his calloused behind to a departing student eager for one final lesson. "Just do it!" the master called out, or words to that effect, a thousand years before Nike copped the phrase.

"I thought that was so funny," says Schumaker, 70, whose response to the story was to skip meditating for a spell, at least not while sitting on his butt. "I painted these paintings, which were sort of my meditations," he says, standing among the spacious abstract pictures in his "Milarepa Series," with their black calligraphic swirls and brushy patches of white, blues and grays, in a gallery at Dominican University in San Rafael. 

Those and other works - including rich mixed-media images inspired by Hector Berlioz, Karlheinz Stockhausen and other composers whose stencil-cut names appear and vanish in these many-layered pictures, and big acrylic paintings steeped in Schumaker's love of Willem de Kooning - are in the college library's airy gallery through Wednesday.

Some of these works will be in the solo Schumaker show opening the Jack Fischer Gallery's new Potrero Street home Sept. 7, when the neighborhood celebrates the opening of several galleries that have migrated to Potrero Hill from high-rent downtown.

Schumaker's show will include recent wood-and-gesso versions of the "dumb" cardboard boxes he began making when he moved here from his native Nebraska in 1966. He'd decided to become an Abstract Expressionist painter at 6 after seeing Jackson Pollock's splatter pictures in Life magazine.

He was a semester shy of graduating from the University of Omaha (now the University of Nebraska Omaha) when he entered a statewide painting contest to earn the $400 he needed for tuition. Figuring the single-color abstractions he was doing at the time wouldn't fly, he painted a loose Pop version of Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam." The out-of-state judges gave it first prize. But the locals apparently saw some kind of three-way perversion in the picture and offered Schumaker a deal: take $400 plus an extra $200 and quietly withdraw the painting - or possibly face a pornography charge.
"I took the money," says the buoyant, gray-bearded artist, laughing.

"I came accidentally to San Francisco and stayed for 45 years." Schumaker, who lives on Potrero Hill with his second wife, artist and illustrator Vivienne Flesher, began showing his personal work a decade ago, when he started crafting big handmade books whose images he painted with paste mixed with pigment. He made some of these works that way.

"It gives you this weird surface that's very hard and really resilient. I love its transparency, the kind of sheen it gets sometimes. You can't tell what it's going to look like dry. So you don't have control. And for me, that's a really good thing."

Earning his living drawing images for Hermes or logos like the prize-winner he did for Moose's restaurant years ago, Schumaker rarely puts recognizable images in his paintings or on the wall. "I get bored with them. They're tellin' me too much. These things don't do that to me, although once in a while I'll stick a little something in there."

He describes his process: "You show up, go to work and hope that something will take over, and at some point tell you, 'paint this blue, paint this red, stop, start, fold it up.' You're waiting for that moment when the thing takes over. You go to work everyday and pray it's going to happen."
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Monday, August 19, 2013

DART Interview


Ward Schumaker

By Peggy Roalf   Wednesday July 17, 2013

Ward Schumaker, an artist who lives near the Dogpatch area of San Francisco, has created illustrations, calligraphy, and art for just about every type of printed matter imaginable. His passion for painting inflects his work, and over the past several years has taken the forefront, with one-man shows in New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Nashville and San Francisco. Currently, the San Marco Gallery in San Rafael, California is hosting a show of roughly 35 works created between 2008-2012. In September, Ward has a show opening at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco. I found Ward in his studio the other day for this email Q&A:

Q: From the small, tightly organized wooden sculptures in your “Dumb Boxes” series to the large, exuberant paintings in the “Composers” series, noise and sound clearly inflects your work. How did music and sound come to figure so prominently in your work?

A: So much art and illustration today makes reference to pop music and if I were drawn to that music perhaps my paintings and illustration might share more similarities.

But my taste has centered on classical and serious modernist music; and at one point I decided to create a group of works in honor of some favorite composers: Janacek, Bach, Gavin Bryars, Shostakovich, Kurt Weill, Poulenc, Andriessen, among others. I think of the works as thank you notes.

Also, until a few years ago, I couldn’t paint without music. There was a decade of listening to Bach, another listening primarily to Weill and Janacek, and finally fifteen years dedicated to Shostakovich and Beethoven. Recently I’ve needed silence to work. I don’t know why.

Q: Your painting and hand lettering art takes many forms; what prompts you to shift from painting on canvas to creating one-off artist books, or collages in series, or sculptural pieces?

A: Ten years ago, my wife (artist Vivienne Flesher) and I took a class at the San Francisco Center for the Book in creating paste-papers (endpapers for books). I pushed the medium by creating large hand-painted books. Later, a gallerist from Shanghai saw some of the pages hanging on the wall to dry and offered to show them as paintings. Then George Lawson suggested mounting the pages on wood, doing away the need for frames and that led to painting on canvas. The sculptures came about separately: in preparation for a year’s visit to New York, I’d taken things to the basement for storage and discovered remnants from my life in the 60s, reminding me of cardboard sculptures I’d created in my first apartment. I decided to remake them in wood, and paint them with what I’d learned in the intervening years. Now I move from one to the other, as I feel the need.

Q: When did you first bring hand lettering into your paintings—was this a natural progression from book arts projects to paintings on canvas or wood?

A: I’ve used words in my work since college (the early 60s). My professors warned me not to, words were ‘non-visual’ in their thinking; but I pointed to a vast library of sacred illustrated manuscripts filled with hand-lettering and continued to include text in my work. As a consequence, I got lower grades. And my teachers’ warnings proved prescient: the next year, I was threatened with arrest for creating pornography when officials misunderstood my painting of one figure with a word balloon blossoming from its mouth as three figures—a femur confused for a male organ and mushy calligraphy for a woman’s privates. (Ironically, the words, in German, read: “Nothing can happen to me.”)  Still, calligraphy became one of the few ways I’ve been privileged to share my personal work with what I do as an illustrator. In illustration, however, I’m careful to make the words legible.


Q: When you get a series going, of small paintings or collages, do you work exclusively with that material until you realize an end point, or do move between different art making activities? When do you know that a series is complete?

A: I work on a series until I feel satiated, until the Voice that tells me what to paint informs me it’s time to move on to something else. I don’t move back-and-forth between projects, although I frequently work on many pieces within one group at the same time, limited by the size of my studio. Lately that same Voice has been saying: time to make a big change. But I don’t yet understand what that entails.

Q: The titles of your works seem to be replies, in a sense, to questions the viewer can’t hear being asked. Could you expand on this: why titles are important, and what is the impulse for incorporating visible thinking in your art? And “Big Heaven” seems to be a recurring theme through different media—could you comment on this?

A: As for titles: I have little control over them––something inside tells me which words to use––but I feel I intuitively understand. Still, I’m probably fooling myself because I‘d be hard pressed to explain any of them. As for Big Heaven: I’ve meditated twenty minutes per day for forty years (with months off for bad behavior). About the time of my first show in Shanghai, I was also doing a daily one-hour walking meditation. It made me feel insanely high! (Art, meditation and insanity seem closely related to me.) At some point the words “I Am Big Heaven” came to define that high, that exhilaration, and I used it in a hand-painted book (now owned by artist Eric Fischl) and a number of paintings. Recently it covered one of my ‘dumb box’ sculptures (now owned by news commentator RachelMaddow). I go through life trying to recapture what seems like the larger knowledge of I Am Big Heaven, but it’s elusive. Which is unfortunate. Because it did, truly, feel like paradise. Of course paradise, on this planet, is evanescent; isn’t it?

Summon Me! Paintings by Ward Schumaker continues through August 25 at the San Marco Gallery of the Dominican University of California, Santa Rafael.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Generator (née Submarine) [Dumb Box 28]

This box started out with a text:

But the box complained that I was letting everyone read its mind.

"That's not what I want," it said. "I want something very pretty. Pretty is what I am."

So I repainted it. I thought it very pretty.

But I awoke the next day to the complaint that it did not like that red dash: take it off!

So I did:

But the next day I awoke to further complaint:

"I asked you to remove the red dash. I didn't ask for a faux distressed finish."

I answered that it had been necessary to sand the surface to remove the red and that part of the black had come off as well; so it was genuine, nothing faux about it.

But the box would have none of that.

"Fix it," it insisted

I added cardboard inserts, as well--though it never thanked me for doing so.

"It's still not right," it sighed."You know what I'm thinking? Those striped pants Picasso had, the ones with the stripes that went around, not up-and-down."

"They'd make you look fat."

"Okay, but I still want stripes, even vertical ones."

"Nice. I like it. But could I ask something more? Could you lay me on my side? That would make everything perfect for me."

Doggerel [Dumb Box 27]